Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Counter Terrorism and the Surveillance State

As news breaks that the Germans have foiled a 'massive bomb plot' aimed at Frankfurt Airport and Ramstein Army Base, as well as the usual infidel haunts like pubs and clubs - in probable commemoration of the September 11 attacks in a few days time - we have been discussing current anti-terror measures in the European Parliament.

The debate was scheduled in July, and, given that the summer was clearly some sort of down-time for Europe's Al-Qaeda affiliates (perhaps they were off in warmer climes, enjoying the sun n'surf or a bit of jihadi training after the cock-up that was the flaming Jeep 'attack' on Glasgow airport) we had prepared a lot of statements about EU laws not being proportionate to threats. Today's revelations throws that into relief somewhat. But I still stand by the Liberal line.

Let me expand. Compared to, say, the Cold War period or even the IRA's reign of terror in the 70s and 80s, Europe is actually a safer place today than it was for many years. That many believe it isn't is testament to the success of propaganda designed to manipulate our sense of insecurity for political ends, most especially those of state surveillance and control of ordinary citizens, like me.

Before you protest against my loony liberalism in the face of fundamentalism I should point out that there is a big difference between introducing a) measures that actually combat terrorism, b) those which are designed to reassure the public -the legislative equivalent of a press release - and c) those which are really designed to deal with domestic issues under cover of the foreign threat. 3 obvious examples would be a) improving cross border police cooperation and harmonising extradition procedures for suspects, b) not letting liquids - or indeed lipsticks - on board planes and c) retaining sensitive data on the population at large, for indefinite periods of time.

All three have been legislated at European Level as part of our response to the terrorist threat. Yet only one, as far as I can see, is actually of any use at all (that's a, not b or c, in case you didnt work it out). B is mostly designed to reassure the public we are doing something (or indeed anything) while we think of a useful response to the problem, and C is designed to bring in through the backdoor a law which will be used against citizens of that state and would never, in a million years, be passed by a democratic parliament back home. In fact, the only reason it can be passed at European level is because deals are done behind closed doors in Council. Once the Ministers shake hands, no parliamentary scrutiny is ever brought to bear on their decisions. We are supposed to take them on trust.

The deficiencies of such a system are quite obvious. First, we have no method of evaluating - in a transparent manner - the laws which are put through in private. As such, with no sunset clauses to speak of, legislation can remain on the statute book without proper scrutiny. For any rational person this is clearly damaging to civil liberties. Insisting that such and such a law is in fact imposed by Brussels is just another way of getting round the legal safeguards to our rights that Constitutions are supposed to establish.

I uncovered a little historical snippet in the New York Times to illustrate the dangers of such a situation. In the autumn of 68BC the world's only superpower suffered a terrorist attack by a loosely organised band of pirates. In panic, according to Plutarch, the Roman Senate granted Pompey "absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone" through the Lex Gabinia.
By the oldest trick in the book, the military high command subverted Liberty, Democracy and the Constitution with the assent of Rome's frightened citizens. Sound familiar?

It should do. News that DNA storgage in Britain is higher than any in the world (we do manage to do the surveillance state better than anyone else: we also have 50% of the world's CCTV cameras, or something) is frightening. Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England and Wales - all but the most minor offences - has remained on file regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted. Now thanks to the EU Data Retention law - pushed through during the UK Presidency after the government failed to get it through the Commons - the scope of such institutionalised surveillance has been vastly widened.

Tellingly, according to Home Office Figures, that amounts to 5.2% of the UK population including nearly 40% of black men, 13% of Asian men but only 9% of white men. What we are creating, in effect, is a system of racial profiling that will lead to many more being prosecuted for crimes they did not commit.How so, sceptics will gasp? Well, as with the Criminal Record Bureau database, its not as watertight as it sounds. Seemingly, over 2000 people have been refused work or arrested because their details ressembled those of known paedophiles and criminals. Yet, judges now want to extend DNA profiling to everyone in the UK, including foreign visitors. Reassuring, non?

Let's go after the terrorist types. But let's do it in a manner that doesn't undermine our own freedoms and culture at the same time. If we let our governments go down that line we may as well be living in a dictatorship like Saudi Arabia. The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that Europe's anti-terror laws do not do the same.

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